Soft Light Sources Reign Supreme

Last week, we delved into the pros and cons of tabletop light tents for product photography. What’s the main reason these things are so popular? They simplify the process of creating beautifully diffused, soft illumination. And frankly that’s the be-all and end-all for all sorts of subjects. Not only does it make most products look good, but it also works wonders on human faces—especially on human faces, in fact. No source is consistently better than diffused light for portraits. It’s also the essential illumination when photographing a shiny subject or anything with a reflective surface and anything you’d like to photograph in a fairly simple, straightforward way without dark, dramatic shadows distracting from the beauty of the subject.

Now that we know soft light is king, how do we put it to use? You can seek it out in the wild or make it from scratch. Here are four ways to soften light for beautiful shots of almost anything at all.

Clouds/Atmosphere

Any photographer heading out for a day of landscape photography is wondering one fundamental thing: Will the light be harsh and direct or lightly overcast and diffuse? Great images can be made in either condition, no doubt, but the soft light from a lightly overcast day turns the entirety of the sky into a giant diffused source. And that provides soft shadow transitions and a low-contrast illumination that makes it easier to bring out details in the shadows—things that would normally go unseen on a bright sunny day.

Photographers of people are also happy to find some light overcast in the sky as it makes portraiture much more effective. For all those reasons of lower contrast and softer shadows, the soft light is flattering on a subject’s face and a great portrait can be made almost anywhere the subject turns when the sky is overcast. On a bright sunny day, the photographer would need to position the subject carefully to keep the sun from their eyes, make their own diffused light with a silk or find somewhere to place that subject out of the direct sun—someplace like open shade. But on an overcast day, the light is omnidirectional, and that makes for a soft, beautiful key light any way you look.

Open Shade

Open shade is any area that’s out of direct sunlight but still brightly illuminated. It’s the same principle at work with a north-facing window light where the sun never shines directly on the subject. Distinct from deep, dark, heavy shadows, open shade is often found under the canopies of tall trees where the bright sky is still visible to the subject. That bright sky, in fact, becomes the soft, diffuse light source as the sunlight reflects off of the atmosphere and illuminates the subject with low-contrast, flattering light. It’s perfect for portraits, of course, but open shade works for any subject that needs soft light—so long as you can move it to the shade! This could be under a roof and open to the sky (via a window or canopy) or tall trees or even next to a building and shielded from the bright sun.

Automotive photographers work with a modified version of open shade after the sun has dipped below the horizon (or before it’s risen in the morning) because the bright source of the sun is hidden from view, but the sunlight bounces off the open sky and creates a beautiful illumination—much like a cloudy sky would, but often softer, more directional and with the added benefit of magic hour color.

Diffuse With A Silk

Back in the early days of 20th-century studio photography and filmmaking, all light sources were harsh in nature and had to be diffused to varying degrees by placing a silk—a translucent white fabric stretched on a frame—between the light source and the subject. A thinner silk created just a hint of diffusion, taking the edge off the specular light source and softening the shadows a bit. A denser silk strongly diffused the light and created soft-edge transitions between shadow and highlight, filling those shadows as well to lower the contrast ratio too.

Today, those same silks are still used in studios and motion picture production—both indoors and out. The ideal solution on a bright sunny day is to use a large silk stretched over the subject to turn harsh sunlight into a soft, beautiful key. Silks aren’t always fabric, in fact. Rolls and sheets of diffusion gels are affordable and easy to use and can be clipped onto a light source directly or stretched on a frame. These are low cost and disposable, and add fire protection when used in close quarters with hot light sources.

Modify With A Softbox Or Umbrella

When it comes to modifying lights with diffusion, most photographers immediately think of softboxes and umbrellas. Softboxes are very popular in the studio because not only do they place diffusion between the source and the subject, their opaque sides limit spill and force all of the light to move in one direction—through the diffusion and toward the subject. This makes them inherently more contrasty than their cousin the umbrella. Umbrellas are much like a travel version of a softbox. They open and collapse very quickly and mount directly to the light source thanks to their nearly universal center shaft. (When working with hot lights, be sure to choose a softbox or umbrella that’s rated to stand the heat of that source. Most softboxes and umbrellas are built for the relatively cooler temperatures of strobes and would pose a fire risk if used with an incandescent tungsten or quartz source.)

Because umbrellas are open at the sides and back, lots of light spills out around them, bouncing all around the room in which you’re shooting. This can be a good thing if you want a little less contrast and a little more fill, but if you need to limit that spill and/or increase contrast, a softbox is a better choice. And like softboxes, umbrellas can be white, silver or even gold inside. This changes the color and quality of the light. Silver is more contrasty and cooler, white is softer and more neutral. Gold is very warm and should only be used for special effects or in small quantities to ensure the subject isn’t overpowered by the golden glow. And with umbrellas, in particular, there are two ways to use them: directly, where the light “shoots through” a white umbrella acting like a diffusion silk, or indirectly, where the light is reflected off of a white, silver or gold umbrella and onto the subject. That brings us to another way to diffuse light: the indirect bounce.

Indirect Light

New photographers often think of reflectors and bounce cards only as useful for fill light. But there’s no reason a light can’t be bounced off of a surface—ideally a white one and ideally a large one—to create soft, indirectly diffused key light. The benefit of this, of course, is that it allows for a photographer to create a much larger source than their equipment might otherwise allow. In lieu of a 7-foot octabox diffuser, a photographer could simply turn their strobe to bounce it off of a white ceiling overhead or a white wall nearby. In so doing, the light loses its specular, pinpoint quality (which produces hard shadows and contrast) and gains softness and diffusion in proportion to the size of the bounce. The bigger the reflection, the softer the light.

In the studio, this can be done with a large white foamcore sheet or flat, and in the wild, it’s just as easy to find the aforementioned white wall or ceiling. If you’re ever in a situation where you need to shoot indoors with a flash on the camera, turn it up to the ceiling and watch your results go from harsh, frontal and unappetizing to beautifully soft and natural—all because you bounced the light and made it soft.

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